Saturday, January 2, 2016

A Thousand Pieces


It lays out like a brain that has been scrambled. A thousand piece jumble that takes more time, energy and focus than I have capacity. A jigsaw puzzle is like putting Humpty Dumpty back together again. 

On a table in our den there lays fragments of the answer. We have collectively been attacking it throughout the Christmas weekend. Many advanced degrees assembled yet the image remains elusive. It needs the arrival of the expert to unlock its mysteries. He will be here soon.

Zack is autistic. Much of what we take for granted he cannot reach. I have watched his struggles for over two decades. That handsome face wanting to express itself in ways it cannot. The words tantalizingly close but forever out of reach.

Almost always when we visit his home, a jigsaw puzzle lays on the dining room table in its own form of disarray. But to Zack everything is apparent. He walks over, studies it for but a few seconds and then makes his first move. Like a chess master, like the Bobby Fischer of this undertaking. It is clear he can see things I cannot.

Zack can stand there for long periods, analyzing, investigating and solving the riddle. He works with an intensity and single mindedness of purpose. All extraneous thoughts have been swept aside. What must it be like for him, for the same body to both betray and bless.

There are glimpses of unique ability sprinkled throughout his days. Outside there is a basketball hoop and with metronomic precision Zack puts one shot after another exactly where intended. Or the tennis court, where he can act as human backboard.

Not all of his days, all of his life, are on the extremes. He holds a job at Applebee's; is an active member of his household, emptying dishes, setting tables and generally being far more helpful than helpless; resides in a home of absolute "foodies" where the kitchen is the center of the universe, and where he makes salads worthy of a five star Michelin resort and, each Sunday, prepares a mean French toast. He is a more than adequate texter, advising in cryptic notes of the particulars of the moment and served, in earlier times, as a guide for his twin sister who would inevitably lose her way in the woods behind their home.

In so many ways and in various routines, a veneer of normalcy applies. But it is those all or nothing aspects, those parts of the experience of Zack which are so uniquely him, it is here that the starkness captures one's eye and attention.

I have suggested to my friends that they take a picture of each triumph that lays on that dining room table. Something to serve as lasting reminder of what has been accomplished. 

I don't know how Zack will react if asked to straighten out the mess that lays before us. Does he have to paint his own masterpiece from first brushstroke to last, or can he act as collaborator and teacher?

On New Year's Eve he should provide us his reply. Until then, our puzzle lays out before us, mocking our shortcomings. And waiting for the master.


He walks through the front door and gives a truncated, "Richie, Robert, Joanne" to acknowledge our presence. And then he moves silently to the den, where he can somehow sense there is a task awaiting.

There must be 75 pieces strewn about, asking for a home. They are the last, and hardest for the rest of us to match up to the evolving image. Yet, almost at once, Zack's hands are in motion. The bottom right hand corner which has proved  an enigma is inadequate foil for Zack's magical talents. Within a few minutes the image of a stack of newspapers is fully formed.

We have other plans for the evening and the fear is that we will have to pull Zack away before his task is done. We need not have worried. In less than half an hour there are no more orphans. Every piece is tucked in its place, every question now laid to rest.

Zack gives no indication that he is aware of the skill he has shown, of his pure genius at this undertaking. He simply walks out of the den. having completed his task and goes forward into the arms of an uncertain night.

As we head into the beginning of another year, there are assuredly dreams by all who have gathered to celebrate, but mostly and forever by his parents, fervently hoping tomorrow Zack will awaken and somehow find the day that lays before him is as clear and discernible as the pieces of that jigsaw puzzle.

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